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Former Vatican ambassador says Pope Benedict and Pope Francis knew of sexual misconduct allegations against McCarrick for years

A former Vatican ambassador to the United States has alleged in an 11-page letter that Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis – among other top Catholic Church officials – had been aware of sexual misconduct allegations against a top American cardinal years before that prelate resigned this summer.

Pope Francis wrote a letter to all Catholics in the wake of last week's grand jury report in Pennsylvania.
Pope Francis wrote a letter to all Catholics in the wake of last week's grand jury report in Pennsylvania.Read moreAndrew Medichini / AP

DUBLIN – A former Vatican ambassador to the United States has alleged in an 11-page letter that Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis – among other top Catholic Church officials – had been aware of sexual misconduct allegations against a top American cardinal years before that prelate resigned this summer.

The letter from Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, who was recalled from his Washington, D.C., post in 2016 amid allegations that he'd become embroiled in the conservative American fight against same-sex marriage, was first reported by the National Catholic Register and LifeSite News, two conservative Catholic sites. The letter offered no proof and Vigano on Sunday told The Washington Post he wouldn't comment further.

"Silence and prayer are the only things that are befitting," he said.

Asked about what had been published under his name in the Catholic outlets, Vigano said, "I confirm that it is my text and that I wrote it."

The letter sent shockwaves through the Catholic world as Francis prepared to speak before a massive crowd Sunday at Dublin's Phoenix Park. Francis and other church leaders are facing a bitterly polarized Catholic Church and some Francis critics, including Vigano, are calling for the pope to step down.

The letter was the latest dramatic development stemming from a fresh wave of allegations related to clergy sex abuse and its cover up. Rumors that had swirled for decades about former D.C. archbishop Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and adults exploded in June when McCarrick was accused of groping a teenage altar boy. Pope Francis suspended McCarrick, who was soon accused of sexually abusing another boy, and of harassing and inappropriately touching seminarians and a young priest.

Last month, McCarrick became the first U.S. cardinal in history to resign.

Vigano, 77, was the Holy See's apostolic nuncio, or ambassador, in Washington from 2011 until 2016. He has been a lightning rod within the Vatican who lost a power struggle in Rome under Benedict, emerged as a Francis critic, and reportedly ordered the halt of an investigation into the alleged sexual relations between an archbishop in Minnesota and seminarians.

Vigano's letter said that McCarrick had been privately sanctioned under Pope Benedict XVI – though only after years of warnings about his alleged behavior. The warnings that Vigano describes dealt with McCarrick's alleged behavior toward seminarians and young priests – not toward minors.

Vigano's letter says in 2013, he met Francis months into his papacy and told him face to face that there was "a dossier this thick about (McCarrick)." He says he then told Francis about Benedict's order that McCarrick remove himself from public life.

McCarrick never pulled away from public life until this summer and was more of a high-profile figure after he retired in 2006, representing the church in prominent foreign diplomatic efforts in places like China and Iran.

"He corrupted generations of seminarians and priests and Pope Benedict ordered him to withdraw to a life of prayer and penance," Vigano says he told Francis. "The Pope did not make the slightest comment about those very grave words of mine and did not show any expression of surprise on his face, as if he had already known the matter for some time, and he immediately changed the subject."

Vigano also alleges in that conversation that Francis told him American bishops "must not be ideologized, they must not be right-wing … and they must not be left-wing, and when I say left-wing I mean homosexual."

It wasn't possible to reach Benedict or his representatives right away. Francis has not commented previously about what he was ever told about McCarrick, and Sunday morning his spokesman Greg Burke did not respond to a request seeking comment.

This summer several clerics said they had communicated to Vatican representatives years ago concern about the rumors, and about the case of a New Jersey priest whose private letters allege his life was ruined by McCarrick's sexual behavior. The priest reached a $100,000 settlement in 2006 with the church in New Jersey, The New York Times reported this summer. He was himself removed amid allegations of inappropriately touching minors and has not responded to efforts by The Post to be interviewed.

The Post and other outlets this summer quoted several clerics who said they'd alerted the Vatican about the rumors of misconduct against McCarrick, which have been on conservative blogs and those of several anti-abuse advocates for decades. The unanswered question has been: Who in the Vatican knew what?

What's new in Vigano's letter is his allegation that Pope Benedict knew of the allegations and sometime in 2009 or 2010 had ordered McCarrick to halt behaving as a priest in public life and to "dedicate himself to a life of prayer and penance."

Vigano says he was told this by a high-ranking Italian cleric, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re.

At the time Vigano was a delegate within the secretary of state's office, working with the Vatican's embassies around the world. He says in his letter that his job included "the examination of delicate cases, including those regarding cardinals and bishops."

Vigano was sent to Washington – reportedly as punishment – in 2011 and was there until May 2016. He arranged a hugely controversial meeting between Francis and an American woman, Kim Davis, who had lost her job as a municipal clerk for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-gender couples. Allies of Francis alleged he set up the pope during a high-profile U.S. visit, and that Francis didn't intend to affirm Davis' cause.

The letter also includes an allegation against D.C.'s current archbishop – McCarrick's immediate successor – Cardinal Donald Wuerl. Wuerl is a close ally of Francis and is already under scrutiny following a grand jury report in Pennsylvania about clerical child sex abuse in Pennsylvania and alleged coverup. Wuerl for years led the diocese of Pittsburgh.

Vigano is vague in the allegation against Wuerl. He says "it is unthinkable" that previous Vatican ambassadors to D.C. hadn't told Wuerl.

Wuerl's spokesman, Ed McFadden, Saturday night denied the report.

"Cardinal Wuerl was never informed of any action taken by the Holy See, was never provided documentation of any kind. If the claim is that Cardinal Wuerl was made aware of this so-called suspension, he was never made aware of that," McFadden said. He repeated Wuerl's previous statements that the cardinal didn't know of allegations against McCarrick, nor of the two legal settlements by adult accusers that came out this summer. "No, never. He knew nothing until the formal announcement (this summer) that a substantiated claim had been made."

Victims and Catholics around the world have been demanding more transparency from Pope Francis and the church in general, and that clerics who covered up for priest-abusers be held accountable.

The letter says Francis "must honestly state when he first learned about the crimes committed by McCarrick, who abused his authority with seminarians and priests.

McCarrick's attorney, Barry Coburn, Sunday morning declined to comment.

The accusations come as Francis makes a high-profile trip to Ireland, a country that has been deeply scared by generations of church-related abuse.

"The failure of ecclesiastical authorities – bishops, religious superiors, priests and others – to adequately address these repugnant crimes has rightly given rise to outrage, and remains a source of pain and shame for the Catholic community," Francis said on Saturday to start a two-day trip. "I myself share these sentiments."